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Facts, current events have taught us there's nothing funny about Russian history

I was eight years old on March 5, 1953. That's the date officially listed as the date when Joseph Stalin died, after being stricken with a stroke four days before.

Mine was not a news-consuming family. I had two uncles--attorneys both--who avidly kept up with the news but my immediate family seemed more news averse than anything else (on the general grounds that all news is bad). I remember watching John Cameron Swayze "hop scotch the news" on NBC on our 17-inch RCA (the first one on the block) but I don't remember an adult ever watching it with me. I think, frankly, I had been parked there as a babysitting maneuver.

All I remember about Stalin's death and the aftermath is that we Americans (young and old) were initially told that a duo consisting of Gyorgi Maleonkov and Nicholais Bulganin was now in charge.

That, it turns out, was completely wrong. But it was an American commonplace in the mid-1950s that "Kremlinology" was just about the most impenetrable subject in the world outside of Einstein's theories. Who was up and who was down in the Kremlin was as much conjecture as fact, according to many.

History cleared up a lot of the smoke, but that hasn't begun to change one simple fact: in everyday America we non-specialists know almost nothing about the death of Stalin and its aftermath.

For one thing, our understanding of Nikita Khruschev has largely been shaped by American media of the 1950s and '60s, which portrayed the Soviet premiere as a fat, balding, boor who liked to bang his shoe on his desk at the U.N. and debate Richard Nixon in close proximity to the pig pens of American farms.

In the years Khruschev was Russia's top dog--until replaced by Leonid Brezhnev--he had been turned into a largely comic figure. But then, so was most of Russia. As brought to us by American media, for instance, Russian women were either slinky spies or overweight women with mustaches and army boots. Men were mostly bumbling, vodka-swilling drunks.

Now we have Armando Ianucci's "The Death of Stalin," a good and black comic movie directed and co-authored by the fellow who has, for years, been giving us "Veep" on HBO so that Julia Louis-Dreyfus could become one of the most awarded comic actresses of our time.

We're still being shown "The Death of Stalin" and its aftermath as a tale of drunks, collectivists, conspirators and bumblers whose industrial horrors were only worsened by being forced into being a "Central Committee."

But there is a big problem with this satiric farce for Americans: a lot of history has sneaked into it. Fact, in other words.

Bulganin had nothing to do with running Russia after Stalin died.

Malenkov, in the movie, is a comically egotistical prig and ditherer played by Jeffrey Tambor, whose mere appearance on a screen evokes laughter.

Molotov--whose name forever festoons a flaming bottle of gasoline in street revolutions everywhere ("Molotov cocktail" anyone?) is played by a subdued Michael Palin of Monty Python. And even that is quite foreign to Molotov in history, a traditional Stalinist and able Russian diplomat.

The tale told by "The Death of Stalin" is not of Khruschev as a crude and overweight buffoon but rather as the blunderer who saved Russia from Beria, the sadistic and cruel monstrosity who was Stalin's secret police enforcer (not to mention a rapist and murderer). Beria was also the opportunist who deeply wanted Stalin dead. History whispers that he may have had something to do with poisoning the old man. And also that he spat on Stalin's corpse when his death was confirmed.

Beria was the evil right arm of Stalin while he lived. And supposedly comic and crude Nikita Khruschev was the fellow who brought Beria down. He's played by the great (slender) character actor Steve Buscemi in "The Death of Stalin" which should tell you how far this movie is prepared to go for comedy.

And that is my problem with "The Death of Stalin," a funny and entertaining and watchable movie to be sure.

But if you don't mind me saying so, one that should never have been made the way it was.

The general fact of life in America is our vast ignorance of Russia persists--especially Cold War Russian history. We've never known much and still don't.

Its education we need movies, among other things, to provide. We don't need farcical Russians.

It's not that satire and fact can't be combined. HBO's Jon Oliver makes a lot of investigative journalism look wan indeed every week. Look at Stephen Colbert.

The trouble is that, in this era, with so much mystery about what Putin's Russia is truly doing and is capable of, we can't afford smug, superior jokes, no matter how good. I'm a great fan of satire but sometimes fact takes total precedence.

If ever a movie would have been better presented to us as drama, it's "The Death of Stalin." No matter how absurd and farcical history was, the smartest thing a movie could do in 2018 is just tell it like it was.

Men who are simultaneously fools and mass murderers need our chills and our fear, not our derisive superior laughs. Don't you think?

 

 

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